Rebecca Soffer became an orphan at 34 when her father died of a heart attack. Her mom had died four years earlier in a car accident. In both cases, Soffer quickly returned to work as a journalist in New York.
"It was just very lonely even when surrounded by all amazing friends," she recalls. "For the most part they don't know what to say. They don't want to remind you that you lost someone or to tell you good news for fear you'll get upset." She felt adrift until she met another journalist, Gabrielle Birkner, who was 24 when her father and stepmother were murdered during a home invasion.
Both women felt isolated from friends who couldn't relate to their experience of losing parents at a young age. So they turned to what they knew best — telling stories — and started ModernLoss.com, a website devoted to candid conversations about grief.
While the site has expanded to include all ages, the focus remains on millennials and Gen Xers who have experienced grief at an unexpectedly early age. "The point is that for us, loss will rear its head a billion different ways the rest of our lives," says Soffer. "We wanted to show people that loss is a new way of life, but that it's going to be OK somehow. The message is resilience."
Many millennials have moved away from traditional sources of comfort, such as religious institutions, yet they still want community. "Isolated, they seek spaces where they can have deep conversations," says Lennon Flowers, cofounder of the Dinner Party, a nonprofit that brings 20- and 30-somethings who have experienced significant loss together over potluck dinners.
Millennials do mourn differently, says Don Lewis, a social worker at UC Davis Hospice Program. In 2009 he started a bereavement group specifically for young adults, ages 17 to 24. "When someone turns 18, they don't magically become an adult. The brain is still developing, and a lot of irrational things happen," he says. "Add grief to that, and things kind of blow up."
Lewis facilitates meetings for young adults grieving the deaths of parents, siblings, friends and relatives. Despite a wide range of backgrounds, he finds that millennials bond almost immediately, unlike older adults in other groups. "On top of the grief, they're isolated at school, at work. No one else understands what's going on in their heads and hearts."
Lewis says a challenge unique to millennials is their constant digital connection. "One minute they are getting a text that says, 'So sorry for your loss' and the next, 'Want to go to a movie?' It's bad enough that we think grief ends in three or four days. With social media it's reduced to 15 minutes."
Lewis offers this advice for parents, relatives and coworkers of a millennial in mourning:
- Check in with them even if they seem OK. "Young adults can't sit with grief 24/7. Often they have to go right back to school or work. Many tell us that no one asks, 'How are you doing?' Ask and listen."
- Look for changes in behavior. "Grief makes it easy for us to react with anger and by drinking more, becoming withdrawn, missing work or school. Tell them help is available and it doesn't have to be you."
- Remember key dates. "While firsts — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries — are difficult for anyone grieving, they are even more so for young adults. Losing someone is especially startling because it's out of the normal order of life."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com